Guidelines for Letters of Recommendation

I am happy to write letters of recommendation that are honest assessments of your abilities and work habits. I will do so under the following conditions only.

  • I will only write letters for you if you waive access to those letters. This is not so much because I do not want you to know what I think of you; in fact, if I do not have a good opinion of your work I will refuse to write a letter. However, any institution to which you are applying will not give as much credence to a recommendation that is not confidential. In addition, even if you are my best student ever, I do not like the idea of you comparing your letter’s content with those of other students, who may or may not have received as glowing a report.

  • Under most circumstances, I will not write a letter of recommendation unless you have taken at least two courses with me. Though I will consider it if I’ve had one course with you, just remember that when I haven’t known you very long or very well, then I do not have the material to make a detailed or confident assessment of your character and abilities, even if you did well in that one class. The fact that I was your most recent professor isn’t enough – it’s the amount of experience I have with you that’s important.
  • If you didn’t receive an excellent grade in my class, I will have to explain this in the letter of reference. Someone reading this letter will also have your transcript, and if you received something under an A, they will want to know why I’m writing the letter. Was there no one else better? I may truly believe that you are a very nice and decent person, but I will have to write based on the performance you showed in class. I will, no doubt, mention that you are a good person (if you are, and most likely, you are), but a graduate school won’t place much weight on that.

  • You should consider whether or not I am the best person to write your letter. Even if you did good work with me, the program you are applying to might be out of my areas. Others might be better choices. If you want to discuss the different possible recommenders on your list, I’ll be happy to go through that list with you and identify who will probably be best.

  • Please note that I require a bit of time to write such letters. While I am certainly willing to try to put something together on short notice in a genuine emergency (you just got a last-minute job opportunity), I can always do better with notice. Grad school deadlines in particular are very predictable. Start early on this process. (See more info below.)

Required Materials

In order for me to write a letter for you, please provide me with a single packet (not a piece here and there, and not with supplements sent via email) including the following:

  1. All the requisite forms, properly filled out and signed by you.
  2. A list of the places you are applying that includes the deadlines for letters at each school, the particular degree (M.A., Ph.D.), and the particular program (for example, "Philosophy" or "Humanities" or "Cultural Studies"; please note that this is important because different types of programs might need a different approach, and you don’t want me misnaming the program in the letter, which could only annoy application reviewers). Include any programs that use online forms that will be emailing me separately.

  3. A draft of your personal statement (doesn’t have to be complete). What’s a personal statement? Most applications require some statement from the candidate on why they think they are qualified for a position in a program, and why the program in question is a good fit for them. Such a statement also often includes something on the nature of a person’s training, and what they hope to accomplish or study in the program.

  4. A copy of your resume, including jobs and extracurricular activities.
  5. A copy of your transcript or audit, including information about your GPA.
  6. A statement of what you remember accomplishing and doing well in my courses; in other words, what it is you think that I might say about you, even including particular interactions. What do you think are your strengths as a student and a writer/scholar? What do you think are your weaknesses and what are you doing to address those?
  7. A list of any other factors I might address – in particular, whether you’ve overcome any difficulties or excelled in ways that might not be obvious from your record.
  8. If there has been a semester or more’s gap between your work with me and the time of the letter, please include a short writing sample (e.g., a paper you wrote for me, or a paper you intend to submit as a writing sample), so I can refresh my memory about your abilities.

Resources for Applying to Graduate School

You will want to identify programs that offer concentrations you are interested in, that employ writers/scholars you admire as teachers, and that give you financial support in the way of tuition releases and/or graduate/teaching/research assistantships and fellowships. No one will do the research for you to find the right programs. So start this early. Know what you want and what it’s realistic for you to expect. For some places to start, see my Thinking About Grad School? page.

Once you know where you’d like to apply, one way you can impress anyone who is writing letters for you is to provide them with an already well-done personal statement or statement of purpose that you are including in your applications. Please don’t rely on me or other faculty member to write these for you or tell you how, though we are usually happy to give an opinion or suggestions for improvement. There are numerous sources of help:

  1. Directories. Petersen’s and the Princeton Review regularly publish directories of graduate programs with rankings and descriptions of a variety of programs. The Princeton Review has one that is particularly on programs in the Arts and Sciences. In addition, the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) publishes a directory of M.F.A. programs.
  2. University websites. Once you have identified some programs that sound good to you, read up on those programs on their websites. You can usually gather a good deal of information about how much support they offer, who is on the faculty and what they do and how much time they spend teaching, what becomes of their graduates, and so forth.
  3. How-to books and websites. There are hundreds of websites, but the ones below are the better ones I have seen. Always remember that these are GENERAL and so some differences may apply in your particular field or situation.

    1. Richard Stelzer. How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School.
    2. Donald Asher. Graduate Admissions Essays: What Works, What Doesn’t and Why.
    3. Eileen Mager, ed. Get Into Graduate School: A Strategic Approach.
    4. (note that these folks have a pay editing service, which I am not recommending)
    7. Requesting a letter of reference:
    8. Resumes and CVs (Curriculum Vitae):

Always remember to talk to faculty members as early as you get an inkling that you want to attend graduate school. Their advice and contacts can be invaluable.

(this list of guidelines was adapted from one written by Dr. Lisa Roney, Dept. of English, UCF)

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